It was the year of living dangerously. Last year, governments turned their backs on the living planet, demonstrating that no chronic problem, however grave, will take priority over an immediate concern, however trivial. I believe there has been no worse year for the natural world in the past half-century.
Three weeks before the minimum occurred, the melting of the Arctic’s sea ice broke the previous record. Remnants of the global megafauna — such as rhinos and bluefin tuna — were shoved violently towards extinction. Novel tree diseases raged across continents. Bird and insect numbers continued to plummet, coral reefs retreated, marine life dwindled. And those charged with protecting us and the world in which we live pretended that none of it was happening.
Their indifference was distilled into a great collective shrug at the Earth Summit in June. The first summit, 20 years before, was supposed to have heralded a new age of environmental responsibility. During that time, thanks largely to the empowerment of corporations and the ultra-rich, the square root of nothing has been achieved.
Far from mobilizing to address this, last year the leaders of some of the world’s most powerful governments — the US, the UK, Germany and Russia — did not even bother to turn up.
However, they did send their representatives to sabotage it. US President Barack Obama’s administration even sought to reverse commitments made by former president George H. W. Bush in 1992.
The final declaration was a parody of inaction. While the 190 countries that signed it expressed “deep concern” about the world’s escalating crises, they agreed no new targets, dates or commitments, with one exception. Sixteen times they committed themselves to “sustained growth,” a term they used interchangeably with its polar opposite, “sustainability.”
The climate meeting in Doha at the end of the year produced a similar combination of inanity and contradiction. Governments have now begun to concede, without evincing any great concern, that they will miss their target of no more than 2°C of global warming this century. Instead we are on track for between 4°C and 6°C. To prevent climate breakdown, coal burning should be in steep decline. Far from it: the International Energy Agency reports that global use of the most carbon-dense fossil fuel is climbing by about 200 million tonnes a year. This helps to explain why global emissions are rising so fast.
Our leaders now treat climate change as a guilty secret. Even after the devastation of Hurricane Sandy and the record droughts and wildfires that savaged the US, the two main presidential contenders refused to mention the subject, except for one throwaway sentence each. Has an issue this big ever received as little attention in a presidential race?
The same failures surround the other forces of destruction. Last year, European governments flunked their proposed reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, which is perfectly designed to maximize environmental damage. The farm subsidies it provides are conditional on farmers destroying the vegetation (which also means the other wildlife) on their land. We pay 55 billion euros (US$71.6 billion) a year to trash the natural world.
This contributes to what I have come to see as a great global polishing: a rubbing away of ecosystems and natural structures by the intensification of farming, fishing, mining and other industries. Looking back on last year a few decades hence, this destruction will seem vastly more significant than any of the stories with which the media is obsessed. Like governments, media companies have abandoned the living world.